Now THAT Was Good!

Ten months of stay-at-home entertainment means we’ve watched a lotta movies we’d never have seen otherwise, old and newish. We liked most, hated a few (I don’t care if Barack Obama did like it, Martin Eden is a serious drag), and I thought these might interest you:

Blow the Man Down – An oddball crime story set in a Maine fishing village. Anything with Margo Martindale is OK by me. I especially liked the breaks in which sea shanties are sung by a male chorus garbed up as Maine fishermen (Amazon). (trailer)

North Country – pushes all those “solitary outsider against Greater Economic Forces” buttons, like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich. This story, based loosely on real events, pits Charlize Theron against Big Coal and a retrograde male workforce in northern Minnesota. At least she has Frances McDormand as her friend and Woody Harrelson as her lawyer. (trailer)

The Trial of the Chicago Seven – excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen is perfectly cast as Abby Hoffman. This brings back all that angst of that remarkable era. (trailer)

The Personal History of David Copperfield – you can’t fault any of this, certainly not the acting, but the book—at more than 700 pages—is necessarily so much richer. Dev Patel is David and Hugh Laurie is Mr. Dick. (trailer)

The 40-Year Old Version – a Black woman (Radha Blank) playwright down on her luck is desperate to have a success before her 40th birthday and reinvents herself as a hip-hop artist. Some really funny stuff about success in the creative arts. (trailer)

Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President – who knew? I didn’t, and I remember his Administration very well. He’s a big fan, especially of the Allman Brothers, but others too, and this documentary shows him rocking out. Great music too! (MHz channel for a short while yet; longer; it may be elsewhere too.)(trailer)

The Border

The Border, Don Winslow

By Don Winslow – Whew! Another 700+ page book in 2020! Thanks to covid for opening up more reading time, though this book requires multiple kinds of stamina. Having read Winslow’s previous book in this unforgettable trilogy, The Cartel, and the late Charles Bowden’s real-life story, Down by the River, I was prepared for the brutality of the drug trade south of the border. And for American hypocrisy. And my own frustration. What I didn’t expect was how much worse it has gotten.

Most U.S. drug deaths come from illegally manufactured opioids (fentanyl), cocaine that is often laced with heroin or illicit fentanyl, and methamphetamines. All these drugs are manufactured and distributed by the Mexican cartels. They have so much money, they are a giant tail wagging the dog of the Mexican economy and the drug lords must look elsewhere for places to stash and launder their loot. Elsewhere, like the United States, where the size of the prize is just too tempting for major banks, like HSBC and Wells Fargo, and others to turn away.

Though Winslow’s character Adán Berrera is a stand-in for drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, it’s around the disposition of the money that Winslow’s new book turns into a mind-bending roman à clef. His main character, Art Keller, is now head of the DEA in the late days of the Obama Administration. On the horizon are the acolytes of surprise Republican presidential candidate and Twitter addict John Dennison, whose son-in-law, Jason Lerner, is a Manhattan real estate investment tycoon. Sound familiar? Real estate, Keller knows, is a prime sinkhole for large amounts of cash, and a deal Lerner is trying to negotiate needs cash fast.

In a Sean Woods interview for Rolling Stone, Winslow said he has no information linking Trump or Kushner to drug money. However, he believes, the link doesn’t strain credibility: “We live in an extremely corrupt era.” He believed that creating another type of U.S. leader would have been much more disconcerting for readers.

Every once in a while, Art Keller climbs up on his soapbox. He rails against the drug-prison industrial complex or the failure of U.S. immigration policy or the shortsightedness of attacking the supply side of the drug equation rather than the demand side or the incarceration of some 300,000 Americans, mostly for petty drug crimes and the relative impunity of those, like the bankers and investors who facilitate the trade from the top.

But The Border isn’t just a polemic. It’s a multi-layered thriller packed with adventure and compelling characters whose fates you’ll care about. If this review concentrates on the issues rather than the literary devices of plot, characterization, setting, and the like, it’s because those resonances with reality will really stay with you. They’re what make this such an important book.

We Americans turn a blind eye to the drug trade and the corrosive power of its financing at our peril. “You know,” Winslow said, “the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened.”

Order The Border from Amazon here.

Rekindling a Love Affair with Television

Somebody Feed Phil

Thanks to quarantines and streaming services, I’ve been watched more television these last few months than I have in years. Here are series our family found especially entertaining, ICYMT:

Somebody Feed Phil – In each episode, comedy writer Phil Rosenthal (pictured) visits a city somewhere in the world and, accompanied by local restaurateurs and food critics, drops in on local markets and farms, seven or eight restaurants of multiple types and price points, and a few of the unique sights. Phil loves everything he tries (almost), and he tries everything. The humor is broad—OK, it’s corny. A foodie website dissed the show because Phil isn’t a “real” food expert, which shows the reviewer totally missed the point. What he’s demonstrating is that anyone can have a wonderful time when they have an open mind—and mouth. He has fun, and we do too! Plus, I’ll bet he knows a lot more about food than he lets on.(Netflix)

The Americans – about Soviet citizens embedded in American life and carrying out spy things. Based on a real-life Russian program (that was apparently remarkably unsuccessful), the series was every bit as good as all my spy/thriller writing friends have said. It was brilliant to set the series during the 1980s, as the Soviet Union was imploding. But I did wonder why Philip and Elizabeth never seemed to worry much about fingerprints. (Amazon Prime)

Call My Agent – Three seasons of this French comedy series are available, with subtitles, about a quartet of Parisian talent agents. Although they all work for the same firm, they are competitors, and their colleagues better not forget it! The strange deals they get involved in always misfire in some awkward, barely salvageable way. Adding to the fun is having real French movie stars play their clients. There they are, without their makeup or their game face on. Playing themselves, sort of. (Netflix)

The Crown – Now showing: The Diana Years. We especially like Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles. O’Connor played author Lawrence Durrell in PBS’s The Durrells in Corfu, which was a charming series. If flint-hearted Margaret Thatcher (superbly played by Gillian Anderson) mentions her father one more time . . . (Netflix)

World Aflame

Last week I posted information from a Wired article by Daniel Duane about the changing nature of Western wildfires. The fear and heroism that emerge in the American West, in Australia, and in other fire-prone areas are ripe for fiction. A writer can always hope that a compelling depiction of the difficulties and terror of wildfires might serve the broader purpose of encouraging better fire management policies, greater support for fire fighters, and improved public safety.

Among the many fascinating “made-for-fiction” aspects of the problem of fire intensity is how very intense fires mirror the experience of Allied bombing campaigns during the Second World War. British and American flight commanders learned they could burn cities down more easily than they could blow them up. And they could burn cities more easily if they knocked down the buildings—especially in neighborhoods with highly flammable wooden structures–before attempting to light them on fire.

That strategy is what caused the catastrophic damage to the German city of Dresden, pictured, producing “a single giant plume of heat and smoke (that) took on a shape similar to a giant thunderstorm,” Duane says. The firestorm had hurricane-force winds that magnified the destruction. These effects are similar to the firestorm experienced after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and predicted if a nuclear weapon hit a national forest in a 1964 US Forest Service report.

The western forests’ accumulation of long-burning heavy fuels—logs and fallen trees that smolder for long periods before bursting into flame—creates conditions similar to those that produced the smoking ruins of European cities. The key ingredient, Duane says, is “simultaneous burning of many small fires in a combination of light and heavy fuels over a large area with light ambient wind.” Over time, the small fires join, the heat plume begins to rise, and the whole catastrophe unfolds.

Duane’s article, like other research writers do, provides the vocabulary—and in this case, a hit at the dynamics of fire—that lets us write about catastrophe persuasively. It doesn’t make us experts, but it gets us a good way there. It leads us to asking the right questions.

This whole article is well worth reading, and part one of my summary is here.

Photo of Dresden by Art Tower, Pixabay.

Lighting and Sound: Theater Magic

Like everything else in theater, there’s much more to lighting and sound design than their obvious purpose of making on-stage action visible and audible. Through means bold and subtle, they enhance our experience and understanding.

Lighting Design

Lighting signals us where to look and who’s the current character of interest, not necessarily the speaker. The type of lighting used (harsh or flattering, bright or muted) further reveals something about the time and place where a scene occurs.

For the last class in my “how to watch a play course,” we watched Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau, as produced by the Lincoln Center Theater. The stage was bare, each scene defined by only a few pieces of furniture, and the lighting did much to reinforce each setting. In the high school scenes, cold, bright light mimicked fluorescents; in the teacher’s home, the light was warm, subdued, and her son’s white shirt glowed in the dimness. While we might not consciously notice this difference, we would definitely perceive it.

Lighting can create a mood and reinforce a production’s style. The fuchsia lighting of the dance scene in She Loves Me was not “realistic”—nor was the dance—but everything worked together to convey the sense of watching a confection.

Smaller effects are also important—the light through a window reflected on the wall, the change in daylight from morning to night, the use of “practical lights” like lamps, flashlights, or the light inside a refrigerator.

These days, the myriad light cues in a production are computerized and programmable. If a theater is outfitted with colored LED lights, even the desired color can be specified for the computer, though old-fashioned plastic “gels” are still in use.

Sound Design

Like lighting, sounds help establish time and place (crickets chirping, a clock chiming, sirens). They can be random or diegetic, if, in the world of the play, the actors know about and respond to them, like a ringing doorbell.

Sounds reinforce the reality of a scene, like a car door slamming or the splash of water from a faucet. Such sounds may be easily overlooked, if only because they fully meet our expectations of what a slamming car door or running water should sound like. Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., who led the course, said that, to create the multilayered sound we hear as “rain,” it takes a combination of at least three separate recordings.

Underscoring, or background music, playing softly under dialog, is not heard by the actors and contributes to mood. Sometimes incidental music ramps up between scenes, as it did in Pipeline, holding our attention while sets or costumes are changed.

Pipeline included some deceptively simple sounds. The teacher’s lounge scenes had a public address speaker, which produced the kind of slightly garbled, staticky announcements we remember from high school. The hospital scene also included public address announcements, but they obviously were the product of a high-end system. A tiny but telling detail and a deliberate choice.

World in Flames

wildfire, fire

Daniel Duane’s riveting article in the November issue of Wired, “The Fires Next Time,” should give the people who live in the American West, all of us who have family or friends who live there, and everyone who loves the area’s beauty yet another serious problem to worry about. A distraction from covid, maybe?

You might think my posts about impending disasters—cyberthreats, climate change, and others—suggest I’m teetering on some mental edge. Not so. For me, these “ripped from the headlines” topics open dramatic possibilities outside the overworked crime fiction obsession with serial killers, duplicitous spouses, and missing “girls.”

The wildfires article is laden with enough drama and information about Western wildfires to create some compelling fiction. Martin J. Smith used an advancing wildfire to great effect, ramping up the tension in his 2016 police procedural, Combustion. It can be done.

Duane points out that, though their number seems to be increasing, wildfires were even more frequent hundreds of years ago—before housing developments, ranches, and towns erupted in fire-prone areas. Fires were a natural part of the landscape. The frequency of these long-ago fires meant they stayed close to the ground, burning surface fuels, and the forest ecology evolved to handle such ground-fires of that type.

Even now that fire managers recognize the benefits of periodic burns, which get rid of that ground-level fuel, it’s had to make that case to private property owners in the path of a blaze. Thus, CalFire’s mandate continues to be to extinguish every one of them as fast as possible, Duane says.

His article begins with a deconstruction of the 2018 Carr fire in the northern Sacramento Valley and explains how in recent years, western wildfires have become much more dangerous. The models that let officials predict wildfire behavior, and therefore, how to fight a particular fire and when to evacuate residents, have become obsolete.

There’s a growing incidence of plume-driven fires, in which wind and weather are redirected by the rising heat column to make the fire burn hotter and move faster. The result is a fire tornado. In the Carr file, it was “a whirling vortex of flame 17,000 feet tall and rotating 143 mph.” A fire tornado sucks up flaming debris (like the remains of people’s homes) and scatters it like firebombs, igniting new blazes.

Modern fires move fast. In some instances, Australia’s bushfires moved faster than people could flee them. The 2018 Camp Fire burned 70,000 acres in 24 hours. For a while, Duane says, it consumed “about a football field a second.” That was the fire that killed 85 people in Paradise, California, and sent Pacific Gas & Electric into bankruptcy. In court proceedings earlier this year, the company said, “No apology, no plea, no sentencing can undo [the fire’s] damage, and no passage of time can lessen the anguish we heard expressed in court.”

Next Week: How World War II Strategies Exposed Some Fire Secrets

Photo: Amissphotos for Pixabay

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence

By Michael Carter — For every mystery/crime fiction lover, there are books that hit the sweet spot of their special interests. There are the cozies with the knitting patterns and recipes. There are election fraud novels for political junkies. There are the gritty, down and dirty books for people who don’t get enough of that in the daily news. Books featuring computer nerds, financial advisers, art appraisers, cat sitters, on and on.

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence, not the first book I’ve read about a math whiz, is an eye-opener. It was inspired by real-life cases in Britain, in which women were convicted of killing their infants based on a really faulty understanding of statistics. Most people—and that apparently includes lawyers and judges and juries—don’t have a good grasp of how statistics work. You might think calculating odds (except, perhaps in horse-racing) is a rather straightforward exercise. Yet, how you calculate them makes all the difference, and the results can fly in the face of “common sense.”

For example, if you toss a coin that comes up heads ten times in a row, you might be inclined to take the bet that you’ll get tails on the next toss. Don’t do it! Unless the coin is faulty, each toss is an independent event and the odds of heads or tails is 50-50 every time. Likewise, you might estimate you’d need a group of at least 100 or even 200 people to make it likely two of them would have the same birthday. You’d be wrong. You only need 23 people to have a 50-50 chance of matching birthdates.

Luckily for the fictional Sarah Richardson, the woman standing trial in Michael Carter’s novel, on her jury is engineer Martin Fielding. Richardson’s two infant sons have died of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the US). Dr. Michael Goodwin, the prosecution’s expert witness, says that, given the relative rarity of cot death (one in every 8,500 births), the odds of losing two children that way are one in 72 million (8,500 x 8,500). “One death is a tragedy; two deaths are murder,” he says. But juror Fielding believes the correct number is more like one in 18 and sets out to prove it.

Set aside for a moment any skepticism that a juror would repeatedly burst out his objections to a witness’s testimony. Then set aside your doubts (perhaps they could be expressed as odds, like one in a thousand) that Fielding would be invited to take over the questioning of Dr. Goodwin. Once you accept those long odds—the outbursts, the cross-examination—the story becomes a delightful takedown of a pompous and dangerous man. A bit of a deep dive into statistics, but . . . it might save someone’s life.

The photo is from a 1990s British courtroom drama series, Kavanagh, QC, starring John Thaw. Excellent entertainment!

The Mirror and the Light

In 2009, British author Hilary Mantel published Wolf Hall, the first book in her trilogy about Henry VIII’s powerful counselor, Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540). I wasn’t surprised that year when it won the Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award. Three years later, part two of the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, won the Booker again—making Mantel the first British writer to win more than once. Eagerly, I’ve waited and waited for part three.

The Mirror and the Light was published earlier this year and, though it made the Booker longlist, it’s not on the shortlist. That seems more in the spirit of giving another author a chance than a critique of this new volume. It follows Cromwell in his final years, and, because I knew how it would end, I read its 750-plus pages in spread-out batches, extended my association with the protagonist and delaying the inevitable. I like to think Mantel felt the same reluctance for the story to end, accounting for the long wait.

Thomas Cromwell was the son of a violent, ill-educated blacksmith from the London suburb (then) of Putney, who rose to have extraordinary power in King Henry’s court. He had no army of his own, no particular following. Other than a few close allies, mostly among his family, the nobility, in fact, hated him and his influence. What he had in abundance was political acumen.

He made Henry a rich man and extended the king’s power and authority. He engineered the annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to his second, Anne Boleyn. When Anne declined in royal favor, Cromwell again aided the king in ridding himself of an unwanted wife and placed Jane Seymour (probably the one of Henry’s six wives he loved best) in Henry’s path. After Jane’s untimely death, he negotiated with the German princes for a marriage to Anne of Cleves.

But there was so much more to Cromwell than bedroom politics. He oversaw the dismantling of Church properties, as he and Henry established the king as the head of the Church of England, not the Pope in Rome. He maneuvered against the Spanish, the French, and the Holy Roman Empire to protect his king and further his interests. In a nutshell, he saw the future and England’s role in it, laying the groundwork for a modern nation led by skill and intellect, not birthright.

Mantel’s trilogy benefits from the tumultuous times in which Cromwell lived. But beyond the inherent drama of the story, her books are an astonishing feat of imagination. In no aspect of his life is Cromwell dealt with superficially. He is a wholly imagined person, with a chess-player’s ability to think many moves ahead.

Over the centuries, other chroniclers have portrayed him as ruthless and ambitious—a characterization his enemies among the nobility would have spread about—Mantel’s books employ the skills of a mind-reader, making him a person of much greater depth. His enemies claimed he wanted to be king, but in her telling, he wanted only to serve his king.

Bottom line? Any author who can help you know so intimately and care so deeply about a person who died almost 500 years ago has accomplished something indeed.

Foreign Intrigue

If domestic intrigues are giving you fits, you might try some stories set in other countries. What you’ll find, of course, is that there’s no end to the shenanigans people get up to. But you knew that, right? Here are three award-winners from France, Germany, and Japan. In general, crime novels by non-American, non-British authors have a different style. They often have subplots that leave you to draw your own conclusions. Personally, I like that extra dose of mystery. These three happen to have wonderful cover art too!

Summer of Reckoning

Summer of Reckoning, Marion Brunet

Some teenage summers are just too awkward and painful to revisit. Marion Brunet’s novel expertly describes a summer exactly like that. When I say it’s set in the south of France, you’re thinking Provence. Lavender and cabernet. The bleak, poverty-stricken village where sixteen-year-old Céline and her fifteen-year-old sister, Johanna, live with their brutish father, Manuel, is not that. Céline is pregnant, and Manuel insists she reveal who the father is. From his drunken determination, much tragedy ensues. Winner of the French Mystery Prize (the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière), it was translated by Katherine Gregor. Read my full review here.

Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz, Mexico Street

Simone Buchholz’s street-smart Hamburg public prosecutor Chastity Riley works closely—in some cases intimately—with the local police. Her cast of well characterized lovers, former lovers, and police colleagues is investigating the latest in a rash of car fires. This one is different, there’s a dying man inside, a member of a notorious Bremen gangster family.

That connection leads Riley and her crew to some dark and lawless places, to a world and family life that operate under their own unforgiving rules. Winner of the German Crime Fiction Prize in 2019, translated by Rachel Ward. Read my full review here.

The Aosawa Murders

Aosawa Murders, Riku Onda

In the 1970s, an Aosawa family birthday party ends with 17 people poisoned to death. The only survivor is teenage daughter, Hisako, who is blind. The evocative, layered story by Riku Onda is created retrospectively from interviews with the principals, starting with Hisako’s memories, the ruminations of the police detective who is convinced Hisako somehow must have been involved, and the author of a best-selling book about the murders.

Was this the perfect crime? As the book blurb says, “Part Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Part Capote’s In Cold Blood.” Winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Best Novel Award, and translated by Alison Watts.

Listen Up!

earphones

Two more excellent books in audio. One by a new author, the other by one of my favorites. Clicking the title takes you to my Amazon affiliate link.

Miracle Creek

Angie Kim’s debut novel received so many “book of the year” accolades, I acquired it on that basis alone. When I grasped the story-line, I was prepared to be uninterested. Boy, was I wrong! It pulls you deeper and deeper in as the plot twists and turns. Young Yoo and her teenage daughter Mary immigrated to America from South Korea with nothing. Young worked long and hard while her husband stayed in Korea to earn money.

Miracle Creek, Angie Kim

After several years, he does come to the States, distant relatives in the South Korean community provide underwriting so he can buy a Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT) chamber and set up a treatment center in Virginia. A sealed HBOT device delivers 100 percent pure oxygen to the people inside and is touted as helpful for a wide variety of  conditions. However, the FDA considers its benefits unproven.

Among Pak’s clients is a group of mothers of children with autism who are convinced HBOT can help. One day, despite all the center’s safety precautions, a tragic fire erupts in the barn where the chamber is housed, killing parent and one child. It’s soon evident the fire was deliberate, and the mother of the dead child is arrested and put on trial. You’ll find everything is far more complicated than it seems. Expertly read by Jennifer Lim.

The Dutch House

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Probably I don’t need to say more than that this intriguing family story was written by Ann Patchett and narrated by Tom Hanks. Maeve and Danny Conroy grew up in the 1960s in a 1922 mansion built by the Van Hoebeek family. Located in the Philadelphia suburbs, the house is filled with extravagant touches, including a gilded ceiling in the dining room.

The children’s mother has abandoned them to go to India, it is said, and they are left mainly in the care of loyal servants. When their father remarries, they have little use for his new wife. She returns their disaffection and exiles them as soon as she can.

The adult Maeve and Danny sit in Maeve’s car outside the Dutch house and try to make sense of how they grew up, what they have lost, and what they have become. The house is a character in the story, the embodiment of lost treasure. Although there is plenty of opportunity for excessive sentimentality in this modern fairy tale, Patchett does not fall prey to it and her characters move briskly through life.